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CAVE OF BONES by Anne Hillerman: Book Review

The Navajo Way.  It’s a culture whose people recognize the importance of nature, are respectful of their elders, think carefully before talking, and hold the belief that the Holy People are the ones who created the earth and its population.  This set of beliefs permeates every part of the lives of the three protagonists in Anne Hillerman’s series about the Navajo Tribal Police–Bernadette Manuelito, Jim Chee, and Joe Leaphorn–and the people they serve on the reservation.

Bernie’s latest case begins with an invitation to speak at a Wings and Roots program.  Wings and Roots is an agency devoted to helping young people who are in trouble, perhaps with the legal system or in a domestic abuse situation or as truants.  However, when she arrives at the campsite where a group of girls and the staff are camped for a night in the lava fields, there’s a search going on for one of the girls, Annie Rainsong, and for Dom Cruz, a staff member of the program.

Annie returns to base camp almost immediately after Bernie’s arrival, but Cruz remains missing.  As he is an experienced hiker who is very familiar with the area, the two other staff members can’t understand how he could have gotten lost.  Bernie gets Annie to tell her of the night she spent lost, and the girl reveals that she disobeyed the program’s instructions to remain in the spot she was assigned and instead went wandering.  Cold and frightened, she entered a small cave where she spent the night, and when she awoke in the morning she saw a small bundle of old bones on the cave’s floor.

Naturally, Annie is horrified by her discovery, especially given the Navajo beliefs regarding death.  These hold that evil spirits, the chindi, will return to the earth if a corpse is not properly buried and the appropriate traditions are not carried out.  Thus, these unburied bones constitute a sacrilege and could possibly prove a threat to the person finding them.

Caves of Bones is a wonderfully crafted mystery that follows Bernie and Jim as their investigations verge from the search for Cruz to the search for another Navajo man, to possible drug trafficking, the illegal sale of the tribe’s pottery, and alleged mismanagement at Wings and Roots.  It’s all connected, but unraveling the threads is not easy.  This fourth novel will make its readers eagerly awaiting its sequel.

Bernie Manuelito and Jim Chee are beautifully brought to life in Cave of Bones, as is retired detective Joe Leaphorn who plays a smaller part in this mystery.  The reader understands, especially in Bernie’s case, where she came from and how and why she became the dedicated police officer she is.  Her personal life is a very important part of these books:  her marriage to Chee, her sometimes strained relationship with her younger sister, and the beginning of her fear that all is not well with her mother.

You can read more about Anne Hillerman at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.